WORLDFOOD – Chinatown

26 Feb 2004

Urban centers around the world with large Chinese communities usually sprout some sort of Chinatown. Most people are familiar with at least one and certain cities, like Toronto or New York, have as many as four or five. These are largely areas where the language, cooking, signage, and foot traffic is very much the same as one might find in the Mother Country – a place apart, so to speak. It’s both a testament to the strength of Chinese culture and a way it reacts to life abroad.

But some cultures blend better than others and an interesting example is the Yaowarat District in traffic-choked Bangkok. Thailand has long been defined by its large Chinese community and the Old Town, where the city laid its roots, is full of proof. It reveals a curious synthesis of things Thai and Chinese in the language, food, architecture, and daily rhythms. Sometimes things balance out on the Thai side. Other times on the Chinese. But more often than not they fall right in between.

Living upstairs and working downstairs, families still occupy shop-houses whose design is Sino-Portuguese. Locals greet each other by saying “Kin khao reu yang?” (Have you eaten yet?) whereas in other areas “Bai nay ma?” (Where are you going?) is used. The former is more Chinese and the latter a Bangkok saying, but in both cases people use the Thai language here. There are both Thai and Chinese Buddhist temples strung along the narrow soi (lanes) and the community celebrates all forms of the New Year (the water-soaked Thai one in April, the red-cloaked Chinese one in February) with food festivals, concerts, and parades.

There’s certainly lots of eating to do. Yaowarat gets its name from a wide road that stretches from the gates of Chinatown to the beginning of Little India. It is lined with old art -deco buildings, low-rise apartments strung with laundry and plants, and Buddhist and Chinese temples tucked on the soi behind.

Many visiting Chinese from Hong Kong say it is what their city used to look like and film directors like Wong Kar-Wai have used the area to that effect. Gold shops are propped up on every corner. Labyrinthine alleys, lanes, and sub-sois vein out behind the main road through old go-downs and some well-preserved collections of wooden shophouses.

In the mornings, street vendors sell paa tong koo (Chinese crullers) which many buy in little brown bags and take to eat in street-corner shops serving Hokkien coffee. Invariably and nearby, one will also find salapao (steamed buns) stuffed with traditional fillings like black bean and red pork, but also with Thai variations like egg custard or pandan-scented dough (which tints it green with a hint of vanilla) and sweet taro paste. Thai-style tea is another beverage of choice and easy to spot: the combination of the Northern Highlands tea and sweet milk stains it an orange not unlike that of a monk’s robe.

Nightfall is when Yaowarat really comes alive. Towering neon signs with Thai and Mandarin characters light up and people from all over Bangkok descend to eat. It’s hard to tell whether the crawling traffic is caused by bad roads or people crossing from one corner to the next as they skirt between street vendors.

Noodles, which first came to Thailand from China, are everywhere and also the only thing eaten with chopsticks in this country, a sign of their provenance. Favorites include kuay tieo kua gai (stir-fried wide rice noodles, served dry, with chicken, egg, lettuce, and sometimes seafood) and kway chap (hand-rolled rice noodles in a black pepper broth with crispy pork belly, tongue, and innards) with a Thai-style chili sauce. Dishes are often adapted to the local palate with condiments or elegant add-ons. Like kieo naam (wanton soup), to which Thais add crab meat, kale, and often a dose of nam prig pao (roast chili paste) according to taste. The result is, incredibly, wholly different from what any one would find in a province like Canton.

At the center of things is an intersecting lane called Soi Texas. Both corners are occupied by open-air seafood restaurants. Rut & Lek’s is on the left-hand side and has servers who wear red shirts (whereas the opposing team, um corner, wears green). They serve Thai-Chinese seafood that reflects the definitive style throughout the country. This combines simple techniques like steaming, grilling, deep-frying or stir-frying, the Chinese part really, and augments them with emphatic flavors in the form of curry pastes ornam jim (dipping sauces, which provides the Thai balance and amplification). Squid are meaty and swimming-fresh and stir-fried with black pepper, baby garlic, shards of onion, and mushrooms. It’s a combination one might find at a hawker center in Singapore, but here the taste is much more vivid.

Sometimes the same dish is transformed with a technique. Take the Thai favorite pak boong fai daeng (stir-fried morning glory with fermented bean sauce and chiles). In places like Hong Kong, all the ingredients are thrown into the wok at once. In Thailand, one adds one condiment at a time. The result is much more layered in flavor and, this being Thailand, much spicier as well.

One can wash it all down with one of the world’s great versions of fresh orange juice. It sells for about $1 for a liter and looks much like a fresh-squeezed bottle would in Florida. Yet the taste is naturally sweeter, with less bite, and the color is deeper. It’s made, after all, from the Thai tangerine, yet it’s at its best in Bangkok’s Chinatown.

Rob McKeown writes about food, travel, and culture for Food&Wine, Saveur, East, the Boston Globe, Gayot’s/Gault-Millau, and many other publications around the world.

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